Interview With Isam Hasenin – the new DBI Director
by Jamie Sanbonmatsu‚ Apr. 11‚ 2007
EDITOR’S NOTE: Isam Hasenin was recently appointed Director of San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection. Housing Inspector Jamie Sanbonmatsu conducted this interview for Beyond Chron.
Q: Mr. Hasenin, please tell us about why you came to San Francisco after a distinguished career in San Diego?
A: The San Francisco position provided me with an opportunity to further my career since San Francisco is very unique, and the Building Department has a different role than I was used to in San Diego. In addition, this is a great City and I wanted live here. I also knew a lot of the DBI staff from previous interactions professionally, and that we have quality professional staff. I wanted to be part of this organization.
Q: Tell us about your educational background.
A: I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from San Diego State, and received my graduate degree in Civil Engineering -- with an emphasis in structural design -- from the Pennsylvania State University. I’m a licensed professional civil engineer and hold some other professional certifications.
Q: The designation, P.E., for Professional Engineer, what does that mean in the engineering hierarchy?
A: That means there’s a State law that regulates who is able to design or sign off on structural calculations or plans for different types of construction. A licensed Civil Engineer is permitted to sign off and design plans for almost any kind of construction. The P.E. stands for Professional Engineer; there are some different disciplines, including civil, mechanical, structural and so on.
Q: Given the short amount of time you’ve had to dive into the Department, give us some insights into your approach and philosophy.
A: One of the things I’m doing is learning about what we’re doing now, and beginning to build personal and professional relationships with my own staff. I’m in the process of meeting with everyone one-on-one to get to know them better, and to hear directly from them on what they see is working, what needs to be corrected -- and then move forward from there. I’m also meeting with members of the Board of Supervisors, City staff from other departments, interested parties and stakeholders. This is a learning period for me, before I make any decisions in terms of reorganization or making changes.
Q: Does the geography of San Francisco pose any particular issues with the housing stock or building stock relative to your work in San Diego?
A: It is absolutely different because San Francisco is obviously almost a
fully built-out city. It’s also a very dense City, and varied in the ways structures and buildings have been constructed over the years. With its tight spaces and lots, the City poses different challenges for code enforcement. It’s unique. It’s also more difficult and challenging to come up with code compliance solutions that are fair and reasonable, and yet provide the level of safety demanded by building in Seismic Zone Four – which is the most at-risk zone in the world. Compared to San Diego, this City is much more challenging.
Q: You now work with the Building Inspection Commission, with Architects, Engineers, landlords, tenants and other designated seats. Is that a different situation than you had in San Diego and how does that fit in with what you think so far about the way San Francisco is run?
A: It is a different official format, a unique format; in fact, I’m not aware of any other city in the country that has this arrangement. I’ve always worked with industry, stakeholders, and the customers we regulate – and I look forward to working with the members of the Commission and utilizing their respective expertise. The communities they represent, such as landlords and tenants, engineers, architects, are important to our work.
It’s my philosophy that cooperation and close working relationships with representatives of community groups we serve, will help us come up with better ways of doing business & streamlining of the process.
Q: Tell us about some of the specific initiatives you took in San Diego.
A: One of the first things I did in San Diego five years ago was to ensure there were adequate staffing levels because it was at a time when we were severely under-staffed. We took steps and hired the appropriate number of engineers, inspectors and so on. There also was a chronic lack of training, so we implemented and formalized additional trainings to ensure that everyone was better equipped to do their jobs a high level. My third priority was to give clear, concise direction to staff about expectations on policies, procedures and technical application of the code because there were issues with consistency.
In order to make delivery of services efficient, effective and transparent, we created a process that is predictable to the customer. That’s really a critical point
from a customer’s standpoint because many times what they want to know is when and how their plans will be managed – more so than they want the plans much faster. So knowing how long it will take, they can plan for that. And that’s one of the things we’ll emphasize in our review process -- coming up with performance standards, due dates for the different kinds of projects that we then commit to, meeting and delivering predictable customer services. I disagree with the notion that code compliance and customer service don’t go together. I believe we can –and must -- do both very well at the same time.
We also implemented a program called “guaranteed second opinion” throughout the department in San Diego. If a customer wasn’t satisfied with a decision from staff or a supervisor, they were encouraged to ask for a second opinion from a more senior supervisor.
The third area we focused on in San Diego was our role as a regulatory agency. We operate in highly technical areas and citizens rely on us to ensure we’re protecting public safety. That’s something we cannot compromise, and means we have to stay on top of always evolving code developments – including participation at the national and state levels and make sure we have staff who are technically savvy and competent and are able to interpret and apply these codes, and apply them fairly and consistently.
Q: You come with a reputation of being an expert on international codes. There’s a transition being made here in San Francisco to adopt the international code standard. Are those codes going to be very different from what people are dealing with right now?
A: Yes, in fact this will be one of those major shifts in how we apply codes. A lot of the basic assumptions we had in the old codes will be changed. It’s going to be a challenge for us, our staff, the industry and customers. We’ve embarked on extensive staff training in these codes, and will also provide training opportunities for members of industry and the community. We will be looking at interpretations and applications to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Q: What got you involved as a very young man in engineering?
A: After high school, I wasn’t interested in engineering. My parents, like many people where I grew up, wanted their kids to be either doctors or engineers; those were the two most favorable things. I didn’t like either one, so I ended up traveling and learning languages in Europe and that was my area of interest. I did that for a while and then realized myself that I wasn’t going to be making a living doing that. I converted to my studies in engineering.
Q: You attended the Mayor’s first town hall meeting about a week or ten days ago. Was that a good introduction to San Francisco’s civic process?
A: Yes, it was because it gave me a clear picture of the interaction between the citizens and local government. It’s definitely democracy at its most basic and unregulated format. I was very impressed by the way it was handled from the Mayor and his office in terms of allowing people, whomever they may have been, to speak their peace even though at some points it was more of a disturbance than asking questions. It was an eye-opener – and definitely different than other places. It’s good for me to know because this may be the environment and dynamics I will be dealing with.
Q: Some members of the Building Inspection Commission have been interested in getting more members of the public to attend Commission meetings. Do you have any thoughts on what might be done to make people pay a little bit more attention?
A: As far as citizen participation, my own philosophy is that I have an open door policy and I usually make my name and phone numbers available to any members of the public so that if they have issues they can come directly to me and deal with them. We want to know how we are doing and people who use the system are the ones best able to tell us and provide feedback and input on changes and processes.
Q: One final question. Are you a Giants’ or Padres’ fan?
A: Well, the way I look at it, it’s almost the same team. We have the previous manager for the Padres managing the Giants. So I guess except for when they play each other, I’d be supporting both. And maybe when they play each other, I wouldn’t watch.